Fiction Literature Meg Max

Garbage Day

I jump out from under the covers, stumbling down the hallway to Curtis’s nursery. The deep cream carpet muffles my steps, soft against my bare feet.

The cool knob of the door startles me fully awake as I turn it. The hinges creak open.

The room is dark. No nightlight. The screams that woke me up couldn’t have come from this room. There’s nothing here to make a sound.

Pulling aside the heavy blackout blinds, navy blue and printed with silver stars, I slide the window open and listen carefully for the screams that pulled me from sleep.

◊ ◊ ◊

That sound again, a high-pitched keening. A wailing. I freeze, unsure of what to do. Then, I close the window. I walk past the shadow of the gliding chair, the crib, eyes firmly on the doorway. Downstairs, I hesitate as I walk through the living room, the dining room, towards the sliding glass door that opens with a whisper of welcome into the cool, dark night.

◊ ◊ ◊

After the baby, we’d had embarrassing amounts of trash. Empty boxes from infant swings folded flat and formula canisters and lumpy bags of dirty diapers spilling across the end of the driveway.

The residue of a happy life.

The day I was supposed to return to work, I stepped outside and saw it. One black bag, waiting at the curb.

I threw up my breakfast all over my work clothes. 

Sitting on the on the edge of my bed in my terry cloth robe, I emailed my boss that I was not, in fact, ready to return to work yet. 

The soiled outfit went into a plastic bag, handles tied in a tight knot. Ignoring the neighbours watching me march down the driveway in my robe, I set the bag at the end of the driveway, beside the original sad sack of garbage. 

I haven’t been outdoors since.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fresh air tastes better than I remember.

There’s no sound but the soft trickle of a pool filter, a siren in the distance, the breeze rustling between the leaves of trees. I slip my feet into the bright orange Crocs Daniel keeps on the deck and walk the perimeter of the back yard. The tulips are in bloom, green things poking out everywhere.

I’d resent all of this vibrant aliveness but the dark makes it palatable.

Climbing the steps back to the deck, I notice two glowing eyes at the edge of the neighbours’s pool.

Once, I would have been able to scale the fence and drop over the other side, but I’ve gone soft. I met Daniel at the gym where I’d hired him to train me. I drooled over his pecs as he demonstrated how to do a chest press. I spent all my time trying to lift heavy without breaking a sweat or making weird faces.

By the time I got to see how beautiful he was naked, I’d fallen so hard his body barely mattered. We used to work out together every night, but my sad body can’t support physical effort, and I resent Daniel’s hard edges. We haven’t been intimate in months.

Instead, we spend our evenings staring blankly at the television without speaking or touching. Sometimes I put on Seinfeld, which Daniel hates, just to see if he’ll speak to me to complain. He doesn’t.

It seems impossible to breach the distance between us with only the length of an arm. I could climb this goddamn fence if I really wanted to, but I haven’t got the strength to reach that far.

◊ ◊ ◊

I walk into the neighbours’s back yard. 

The glowing eyes belong to a raccoon. She’s standing at the edge of the pool, which is all bundled up for winter. In the middle of the bright blue liner are three baby raccoons, drowned in a puddle of melted snow.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fishing the kits out using a rake the neighbours have left in the yard is more difficult than I expected. The bodies are waterlogged, heavy and unwieldy as I place them in a recycling bin and carry them to our yard, mama raccoon beside me.

Behind the shed, I tip the kits gently to the ground in front of the mama raccoon, who nudges them gently. She fusses, trying to get them to move.

“They’re dead.” I tell her. “Your babies are dead.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The ground is still hard from winter, and I sweat digging a hole with the shovel I didn’t know we owned. I place the bodies inside the hole, grab fistfuls of dirt, throwing them over the babies as their mother keens and paces behind me. She lunges a few times, scratching at my arms and legs as I kneel, but I hold her back.

There’s no doubt they’re dead and in the ground. Curtis had been obstructed by the wood and satin of a coffin. His grave is marked by a cool curve of a tombstone. If it weren’t for the bright moon, you wouldn’t even know anything was buried here. There’s nothing to mark the spot, but I won’t forget it.

When I turn to go inside, the raccoon immediately starts digging, pawing at the place where I set her young. I hiss at her, and she turns to me, eyes glowing and mouth open in a terrible grimace. She steps towards me, and I step back. 

I walk to the back door, the racoon two steps behind. When I slip inside, she follows.

She follows me upstairs to the nursery, where the door hangs open. She sniffs the perimeter of the space, then scurries under the crib, a small shadow in the big room.

◊ ◊ ◊

The raccoon’s name is Allison. It’s what we would have called a girl if we’d had one, after Daniel’s mom who died when he was in his twenties. 

He’d been so excited to find out I was pregnant, even though we’d never talked about having kids. I wasn’t sure I wanted them, and I knew he did, so we avoided the conversation altogether before that. 

Daniel didn’t want to find out the baby’s sex, chirping at me about gender being a social construct. But even my socially conscious, woke husband couldn’t handle the moment the doctor handed him the baby.

“I have a son,” he wept. “I have a son.”

Curtis came into this world bathed in the tears of his father and left it the same way.

◊ ◊ ◊

Daniel can always sleep. For years, I loved the weight of him next to me as I lay there and stewed in my anxiety. It was a comfort to burrow under his bulk.

After Curtis was born, I started to find Daniel’s ability to drop off and stay asleep a personal affront. It was always me who woke up with the baby. Always me who got up in the middle of the night. Even if Daniel said he’d do it, I’d wake first to the sound of Curtis fussing or crying, and it seemed selfish to wake Daniel up, too.

I wish I’d resented those late nights less. It’s the kind of thing you can only think in hindsight, when you’re no longer sleep deprived and angry.

◊ ◊ ◊

I put on sweats and a sweatshirt to go to bed tonight. Daniel flicks a glance over me and my unusual outfit before turning back to his phone, a flower to sunlight.

I can’t compete with that kind of glow.

Later, the sky dark and house quiet, I am not particularly gentle as I push back the blanket and climb out of bed. Daniel doesn’t wake up anyway.

◊ ◊ ◊

Allison and I roam the streets all night. She climbs trees and knocks over garbage cans and digs up people’s lawns to find grubs. I follow her through the neighborhood to a small, dense patch of forest I never noticed. These suburbs are spreading but there are still some wild spaces. The ground beneath my feet is padded with fallen pine needles, so soft I make no noise as we move between the towering trees. It gets darker the further we go and my eyes strain to keep track of Allison scampering ahead.

I remember Daniel mentioned seeing a coyote when he was on a run early one morning, and I shudder, following Allison deeper into the woods.

◊ ◊ ◊

One evening I walk into the nursery and find Allison opened all the drawers in the small white dresser to pull out Curtis’s tiny clothes. They’re strewn around the room like wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

People told me to pack up his things, to donate them, or at least put them away. Like I could forget him if I did. 

My hands are shaking as I bend down and collect tiny onesies and miniature pants. Every piece of clothing has been damaged by sharp teeth or claws.

My mouth goes dry. Allison pads towards me, backing away quickly when I turn, teeth bared, a growl rising unbidden in the back of my throat. 

The soft scent of Curtis creeps from the clothing as I toss it into a laundry hamper, wrenching the sheets from the crib for good measure.

It takes a few trips to clear every broken thing from the room. My arms shake from the weight of the hamper. In the garage, I cram things into black industrial sized garbage bags. They’re too fat to fit inside the trash can. I kick the bags again and again and again until they split open and the clothes spill out of the bag’s belly like guts. I stomp on the clothes. I can’t take it, this loss disguised as abundance.

Allison huddles by the garage door. When I open it, she slips into the dark, waddling away from me as fast as she can. I call after her, racing down the street into the night, but she’s disappeared into the shadows. I wander the streets calling her name until the sky turns bright.

◊ ◊ ◊

When I walk inside the house the next morning, Daniel is waiting for me. My throat is sore from screaming her name and my legs feel heavy. 

“Where were you?” He sounds more curious than angry. His jaw is clenched, his hands fisted on his knees. He’s wearing his gym clothes. I am late coming home. 

“I can’t sleep, so I’ve been going for walks at night.” 

My voice is hoarse. Daniel examines my puffy, miserable face.

“Ok. I’m glad you’re getting out.” He stands. “If you leave tonight, close the door. I had to chase a raccoon out of here this morning.” He jingles his keys in his pocket as he walks to the front hall. “We’re lucky nothing worse happened, door wide open like that.”

I lost Allison in my rage last night, and he sent her away when she tried to return. I wish she were here instead of him.

He walks out the door, careful to turn the key in the lock before he goes.

◊ ◊ ◊

I prowl the streets looking for Allison. I don’t find her. I’ve been wandering all night, but it is only when sunlight sneaks over the horizon and I head home that I see Allison waiting on the porch, clutching a slice of bread in her paw. She eyes me like an employee waiting for her late manager. I collapse onto the steps, relief turning my bones to jelly. I reach for her, wanting to draw her to me, but she skitters away, nails loud against the concrete stoop. We enter the house together, and she hurries up ahead of me and into Curtis’s room. 

I sit down in the glider and she curls up close by. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of our breathing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Allison and I remain nocturnal creatures until I unintentionally sleep through a night.

When I realize what has happened, I run to Curtis’s room. The carpet in the hallway squishes, wet beneath my feet. The bathroom is covered in water, sink running with several rolls of soggy toilet paper stuffed in it. Curtis’s room is empty.

Downstairs, the kitchen cupboards are open, pots and pans strewn across the floor, upper cabinets gaping wide. Boxes of crackers and a loaf of bread are scattered across the counter. Allison sits on the dining room table, a box of cereal torn open beside her, cheerios spilled out on the floor. She picks them up delicately, one by one, and pops them past her sharp teeth into her mouth.

I shoo Allison into the back yard. Watching her sit and stare at me imploringly, the laughter begins without my permission. My shoulders shake and my giggles are unfamiliarly high pitched. Something cracks open inside me, tectonic plates shift. My nose is running and when a sob wrenches itself from my body it comes from a pit so deep I’m pretty sure I’ll never stop crying.

I sit down on the floor, disaster all around.

◊ ◊ ◊

Daniel looks at me, brow furrowed.

“There’s been a raccoon living here?”

“Yes.” I nod, fingers laced together in my lap.

“And it… Did this?” He waves his hand around, a gesture I assume is intended to encompass the shredded curtains, the ruined upstairs carpet, the flooded bathroom, the kitchen I tried my best to clean before he got home.

I nod. He stares.

“You don’t even like animals.”

“I didn’t think I liked babies either, but I loved him. I loved him so much.”

I begin to cry. My solid state is temporary. I’m liquid, again.

“You didn’t even notice.” I tell him.

“Didn’t notice what?”

“Anything.” 

Daniel covers his face with his hands and takes a shuddering breath.

I sit on the sofa while he goes to the store to get a fan to dry out the carpet. I am still there while he restocks our cupboard with crackers and bread. By the time he goes upstairs without saying a word, I’m sitting in exactly the same spot, alone in the dark.

I find him in Curtis’s room amongst the carnage of all we carefully picked out for our son. The carpet is filthy, the crib chewed, the glider pocked with bite marks, the curtain rod pulled down along with chunks of drywall. Everything is covered in a fine white dust.

I couldn’t see it before, how bad it really was. Maybe I just didn’t care.

◊ ◊ ◊

I try to sleep. I lie in bed staring at the ceiling until I can’t take it anymore. Daniel sits up and watches me walk out of our room. We still haven’t spoken.

I make my way through the suburbs to the little patch of woods where Allison and I often went. Out of the comfort of the streetlights, the shadows feel long without her waddling ahead, the nighttime air endless.

With my back against the trunk of a tree, I feel small. The sky above is not speckled with stars. Allison could come, but she doesn’t.

By the time I head home it’s fully light and too late for Daniel to be waiting, but I’m still disappointed when I see that his car is missing from the driveway. 

◊ ◊ ◊

It is garbage night, and I am certain Allison will come searching for snacks. She loves the mayhem of knocking over trashcans, loves to chase away the small red foxes who also follow the scent of whatever the neighbours put out. 

I find her eating, clutching her bounty in her small black paws, eyes glittering in the dark. I’m so excited to see her that I rush forward, to scoop her into my arms. From happily crouched and snacking, Allison lunges, tears at the arm I throw up to block her, with teeth and claws. The pain is searing. 

I stumble, clutching my arm, looking over my shoulder to make sure she isn’t following me home, this time.

◊ ◊ ◊

Daniel is watching TV through the front window as I approach the house. I thought he’d been snoring away after watching me slip out into the night. It is much later than I’d expect him to be awake.

He looks up when I open the door.

“I need your help,” I hold out my bleeding arm.

His face pales and he rushes towards me, TV remote clattering to the floor.

◊ ◊ ◊

I should have known Daniel would want me to go to the hospital. 

He stares at me like I’ve lost my mind when I say no.

He thinks walking into a hospital is no big deal.

It is clear to me that we are living on different planets. We are living in different galaxies. We are so far apart that gravity affects us separately, we aren’t breathing the same air, we can’t survive in the same space.

I clean the cuts and bites alone in the bathroom, ignoring the knocking on the door.

◊ ◊ ◊

It is pitch black outside but all the lights in the house are on when I step into the hallway. The door to Curtis’s room is open, but when I look inside, the nursery is empty.

The stairway wall is gouged and dented in several places. The front door hangs open. 

Outside, Daniel is standing, crib, glider, and dresser in the driveway behind the car. He has a crowbar in his hand and is raising it overhead, smashing it against the dresser again and again and again until the solid wood top cracks.

Across the street, the neighbours’s lights go on.

I stand and watch Daniel until he has turned the familiar furniture into something unrecognizable. When he looks up at me, red faced and disheveled, he too is unrecognizable.

◊ ◊ ◊

We were driving home from visiting my parents. Curtis slept the whole way, which wasn’t unusual after a tough night. He was such a good baby but he preferred being home in his own space, like his parents.

So we let him rest.

We laughed and chatted.

We will never know exactly when it happened.

It could have been when I opened the window, put my hand outside to surf on top of the air. When I was feeding Daniel Funions, his mouth wet against my palm. When we held hands across the centre console, sitting quietly as the world passed us by, feeling loved and lucky and warm.

We pulled into the driveway and Daniel kissed my cheek before going to get Curtis out of his car seat.

“Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia!” 

Daniel screamed at me to call 911 but instead I stood there staring at my husband and my baby. I did nothing while a neighbour called for an ambulance.

Was he dead before I tried to turn up the radio, Biggie rapping, Daniel pushing my hand away, telling me to turn the volume down, worried I’d wake Curtis up?

It was no one’s fault, they told me. Sometimes these things just happen.

My whole family out there in the driveway, ruined, and I hadn’t even known he was gone.

◊ ◊ ◊

I walk towards Daniel slowly, take the crowbar from his hand and try to lead him inside, but he crumples to the ground.

His hands are bloody.

We’re both so horribly, and terribly, hurt.

I sit down beside him, laying his head in my lap while he weeps. I wrap my arms around his body, both shielding and burying him.

When Daniel finally goes still, I rise, pulling him with me. He lowers his forehead to mine and kisses me ferociously. It is so unexpected I almost stumble, but he holds me upright. I kiss him back, tasting the tears on his lips, standing in this driveway where Curtis’s body had lain. 

◊ ◊ ◊

We sway awkwardly together inside this constellation of mess we’ve made, trying to find our centre of gravity.

Down the street, I hear the growl of a garage door opening, the rattle of a garbage can full of trash or treasure or dinner being pulled to the end of a driveway. 

 

Meg Max is a writer and mother living in Ottawa. Her work has been published in the Feathertale Online, and is forthcoming from Lost Balloon and Toad Hall Editions’ kerning|a space for words. She is the founder of Writers in Bloom.

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